A new research station in Antarctica, being constructed by a Chinese expedition 4,093 metres above sea level, could significantly increase the length of the paloeclimatic record available to scientists. The longest previous Antarctic ice core – discussed in Richard Alley’s book The Two Mile Time Machine – provided information on temperatures and atmospheric composition going back more than 800,000 years. Given RADAR images suggesting that the ice at the new site is more than 3,000 metres deep (and the slow rate of snowfall at this location), it could lengthen that record to as much as 1.5 million years.
Having as much paleoclimatic data as possible is very important for understanding the climate system. It allows more scope for unravelling the interconnections between different feedback cycles within the climate, as well as more data on how the system responded to various kinds of forcings: from changes in the orbital characteristics of the Earth to volcanic eruptions.
While the basic physics of climate change are extremely well understood (just as the flammable properties of gasoline are very well understood), the full workings of the machine in which it is taking place remain mysterious (as the characteristics of a complex gasoline-powered machine might be). This is especially true when something unprecedented is altering the dynamics of that system. Regrettably, one piece of data that cannot be extracted from past climatic records is precisely what consequences the human emission of greenhouse gasses will have. That said, by shedding light on the history and dynamics of the climate system, better paleoclimatic data could play an important role in evolving the climatic models that provide our most informed projections.
The station from which the new core will be drilled should be finished by the end of this month.